The amazing Susan Sontag on photography…

train mountain

As photographs give people imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure … Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that the fun was had. Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of families, friends, neighbours. But dependence on the camera, as the device that makes real what one is experiencing doesn’t fade when people travel more. Taking photographs fills the same need for the cosmopolitans accumulating photo-trophies of their boat trip up the Albert Nile or their fourteen days in China as it does for the lower-middle-class vacationers taking snapshots of the Eiffel Tower or Niagara Falls. A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic – Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures” (Susan Sontag On Photography p10).

I really love this piece of cultural observation from Susan Sontag (published over 36 years ago). More than a few friends of mine have remarked how liberating it felt when they forced themselves to put their camera away for a few days while travelling. After getting over the initial fomo they recalled a far more tangible sense of being present and living the experience now rather than living it to recall later. In reading her thoughts I find myself smiling guiltily as she easily enumerates my unknown motivations for taking photographs. Whether it be ‘certifying experience’ and providing indisputable evidence that ‘fun was had’, or as a way to placate my own insecurities of being unproductive on holiday – I have been exorcised of my naïve view that photographs are just a means to remember events. Reading things like this helps me to realize that it is easier to focus on doing rather than being, but that being is more important. Doing usually produces something tangible – evidence or proof, something to show for it – what does being produce? Perhaps a life without regrets?

*For an excerpt of the book see here (PDF).

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